We travelers are a competitive bunch. How many countries have you been to?
I once spent a night in a bar with Malik tallying them on cocktail napkins. I won that round, but he kept making up rules. You had to have spent the night or eaten a meal. Borders from when you were there, so no bonuses for the USSR or Yugoslavia. Changing planes didn't count. That was fine; I only lost Taiwan, and Minnesota.
But surely I got to keep Liechtenstein. On our way to Bavaria, Dieter made me ask the border officer to stamp my passport, even though I didn't speak German.
I wasn't giving up North Korea either, just because it was a day trip. Stepping across the line at the DMZ, surrounded by Republic of Korea guards with machine guns and wraparound glasses while being warned of machete attacks, or being kidnapped and used in propaganda. That's got to be worth more than bouillabaisse in Monaco.
Being Canadian, Malik also didn't want to count my 40-odd states. He kept trying to exclude former territories—French Polynesia as part of France—but only the ones he hadn't been to.
For the truly hardcore, there's the Century Club. You need 100 countries to join and then stop off in tiny islands to get your passport stamped. It gets harder and harder, or your counting gets weirder (7 stamps for Antarctica; and Puerto Rico and Alaska as separate countries? Vatican City but not the Navajo Nation? Their rules are less consistent than the Scrabble Players' Dictionary.) My number increased by 4 without leaving home.
Okay, so counting is pointless. How else to demonstrate worldliness?
On the last night of a trip to Havana, my friends sat around and compared how long it had taken each of us to get picked up by locals. Daniel the Montessori teacher noticed a sexy woman in our hotel lobby the night we arrived, at midnight as we drank Cuba Libres and waited for our room keys. The hotel detective escorted her out to the balmy night, while Daniel followed furtively as far as the door.
Virginia the biology professor had been approached at the pool by a shirtless guy who offered to show her a good time. Whereas it took me almost until the last day for a much younger man to compliment my Spanish (always a good tack) and invite me home to meet his madredeus. His real mother was in America, I learned, as he led me through the broken streets of Centro to an Afro-Cuban woman watching telenovelas. Maritza, who practiced santeria, judging by the santos on her shelves.
They found me a folding chair, and we chatted about Obama and whether anything would ever change. It was all very innocent. He walked me to the Malecón to catch a wawa, the camel-shaped bus, because I was too embarrassed to take a cab back to my luxury hotel.
Suddenly he turned all Romeo, giving me his phone number, brushing the hair on my forehead aside with two fingers to kiss me, like he'd been studying "The Way We Were." My hairdresser would be proud. Not that it was hard: you just had to put yourself out there.
But the best test I know is how long it takes until someone mistakes you for a local. The second day in Cuba, two elderly women asked in Spanish for the bus stop. I was so excited. After six months of lessons, I understood their accents! Even better, I knew where the stop was. Not exactly a habañera, but I had passed.
In Vienna last summer, a young man approached me outside a museum waving a map.
Ich nicht sprechen Deutche, I said, walking away toward Hundertwasser House. That was all I knew how to say, aside from Kannen zie stampen mein passe, a phrase that was more useful before Europe had open borders.
He looked at me blankly. Apparently he didn't sprechen Deutche either. Relieved of having to pretend to speak German, we looked at the map together, and I dispatched him to Wien-Mitte, the train station he was looking for, mission accomplished.
Why is passing so gratifying?
It means you've fooled someone into thinking you belong. And isn't that the goal of hardened travelers: to be instantly plausible anywhere in the world? Not to mention payoff for all those hours spent poring over guidebooks and maps.
On the same trip, I was headed to Prague and Paris. The guidebooks were adamant about dress. You must not wear jeans and white sneakers or everyone would know you were American. No baseball caps either. I packed suede shoes, maroon pants, and a rolling suitcase full of scarves.
In Prague I was surrounded by people in Levis and Nikes and Yankees caps: Russians. The only American I met wore Vibram five fingers frog shoes; exactly what you wear when you're trying to blend in.
When I got to Paris, I hopped on the Metro from my friends' apartment. I wandered through one of the cavernous transfer stations, when a couple approached and asked for directions. Pardón, they said sweetly. And then something else.
Oh no, I replied with what I hoped was a Gallic wave, je ne parles pas Francais.
Oh, the man said sadly. We kept walking looking for the 3 line. Español? I tried, mostly to prove that Americans don't only speak English. He shook his head. Je suis Americaine, I apologized. His eyes lit up.
Algerian, he said, offering his hand. His French wife looked on amused. We pressed on in search of common languages.
No. Russkaya Yazicka?
Russkie! Da, koneshe.
We had found our train, my comrade and his wife and I. We chatted happily until the next stop. I tried to remember a few words from college Russian, a million years ago, when the Soviet Union was still a world power.
Dasvedanya. Bcevo horosheva.
We parted cheerfully, citizens of the world. Or at least of the Metro.
published 13 September 2011